Where are we now?
It was just over a year ago that Taylor Swift dropped what is likely to be the biggest pop album of a generation. 1989 is still in the top 10 on the charts – one of only five albums to ever achieve that level of sustained success (the others being: Born in the USA; Falling Into You; Rumours; and 21). What are we to make of this chart dominance? If it is a high-water mark for modern pop music, what might come next? The answer might be more of the same.
“The future is an accident,” Skrillex told the New York Times Magazine last week. Skrillex, or Sonny John Moore, is a producer and musician. For a while, Skrillex was mostly known for his electronic music and his haircut. He’s still known for those things probably, but as of this past week or so, he’s also known as the man behind Purpose, Justin Bieber’s comeback album – if we want to call it that.
Skrillex’s explanation for the future being an accident: “It’s an accident because you explore. You have to go through with a machete and just hack away and find it. You can’t see it – you just have to go somewhere you haven’t been before.”
Of course, it’s always good marketing to tell everyone that what you’ve produced is completely new and different. But is it? When Bieber discussed his new single, “Sorry”, with the NME, he almost weighed in on what music in the future might be like.
“The melodies are really catchy and some people would kinda misinterpret that as being safe, y’know? And [Skrillex] is like: it’s like sushi. It’s like the purest form, y’know, because it’s like the Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’. It’s like, it’s simple melodies but it’s so effective, and I think music right now is missing the simple and effective, but like, real music, and I don’t know, I’m excited.”
Last month, when Spin magazine surveyed 40 of the top producers in music to grab their thoughts on the future of pop music, Diplo, who worked with Bieber and Skrillex on his summer hit, “Where Are Ü Now?”, said something vaguely similar.
“I think it’ll be more stripped down,” he said of pop music in the future. “We’re already seeing that. The old pop architecture with ‘as much as possible in a record’ is gone. Now we’re at a place with simple, clever songs, and engineering and sounds being reinterpreted in a clever way.”
Could he be right? If recent history is our guide, it sounds like wishful thinking.
Where are we going?
While most of the 40 producers Spin polled failed to really agree on much, a few talked about pop music working in a cycle. We know this is generally how pop culture, not just music, works. The old is new again, over and over. The pop music cycle can sometimes be very quick, refreshing not every decade or so, but perhaps only every couple of years. John Seabrook describes the phenomenon in his recent book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, by laying out a three-part pop music cycle theory developed by radio program director Guy Zapoleon.
The cycle is said to move from “pure pop”, which has the largest mass appeal, into what Zapoleon calls “the doldrums”, where listeners and programmers tire of that pop sound and ratings drop. At that point, the theory goes, radio programmers look to “the extremes” to make things more interesting again. For a while, that brings back younger listeners, but alienates older ones, and so eventually, pop radio heads back toward “pure pop” and the cycle restarts
By way of example, Seabrook cites the 1990s, which he calls a “textbook illustration” of the theory. The 90s started with pure pop (New Kids on the Block), of which people quickly tired. Grunge then filled the void from 1993 until it, too, was completely overcooked. In 1997, the Spice Girls and their ilk led to the “rebirth of pure pop” until around 2001, when Eminem arrived on the scene. After that, Seabrook moves on to document the rise of American Idol and the return of pop to the forefront of the radio waves, from Kelly Clarkson through to Katy Perry.
Tracing those periods of pure pop can’t happen without mentioning Max Martin, the Swedish uber-producer and songwriter. Martin’s work in the early 1990s with Denniz PoP (the man behind Ace Of Base) put him on a hit-making path for the better part of the last 15 years, starting with the Backstreet Boys. Still, that era of pop was short-lived, taken over by garage rock and rap in the early 2000s.
Then things cycled back… and stayed there.
Fully 19 of Martin’s number-one hits have come since 2008, which means for the past seven years. And since Martin has spawned a number of acolytes who, in turn, are now also mega-producers reflecting Martin’s signature style, it means that most of what we’ve heard is Max Martin and the Swedish hit-making sound he helped perfect, or people who sound like Max Martin and the Swedish hit-making sound he helped perfect.
Why hasn’t the cycle reset?
We still listen to the radio – a lot – but these days, radio program executives aren’t the only people curating pop music playlists. Listeners can do it themselves. Streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and, now, Apple Music, tend to reinforce what’s popular, rather than challenging listeners to find something new. As the Telegraph’s music critic put it last month, “[Spotify] is bound to act like a vast echo-chamber, reinforcing patterns of taste.” Which may mean it will become more and more difficult for something at the “extremes” to punch its way through, if only because few – and probably fewer who are trying to make money off what they know works – will be looking for it.
People still want to hear what’s popular, but what’s popular is often what’s familiar, and what’s familiar is what algorithms at the heart of streaming software (and iTunes, for that matter) are designed to present to users. Which means, rather than a cycle working at large, through culture as a whole, shifting mass audience taste back and forth, we are limiting ourselves to mere repetition. And the more we hear something, the more we like it, and the more we like things like it.
The thrill of the same
Skrillex, Bieber, and Diplo might all agree that pop music is headed somewhere new, but for the most part, Purpose is not a genre-breaking album. Perhaps it’s not up to Bieber, inculcated as he is in the pop mainstream, to start a new cycle of pop music. But who will?
Maybe nobody. Maybe the cycle is forever broken, thanks to the acceptance of pop music, via people like Swift and, to a lesser extend, Robyn, as legitimate art, just as rock or hip hop were historically when relegated to the fringes of the mainstream. Yet, accepted rather than derided as it may be by the critics now, little about mainstream pop music has truly changed in recent years. Co-opting from the fringes has occurred, but a full taste takeover? Is innovation really possible if a reset doesn’t happen?
It may be telling that while the producers Spin talked to about the future of music found little common ground in their predictions for the future, many agreed on who will be “leading the conversation in pop music five to ten years from now”.
“Max Martin will be songwriter of the year for the 15th year in a row. Skrillex will be the biggest producer in pop,” Tor Erik Hermansen (of Stargate) replied.
“Max Martin. Everyone else, including myself, pray for the longevity [he’s] had and will continue to have,” Ester Dean said.
“I believe Max Martin and team have proven their staying power on the pop side,” Fernando Garibay said.
Benny Blanco put it another way: “Guys like Rick Rubin and Max Martin could really be here not only five years from now but until the day that they die.”